Ever-Creative ‘Pearls’ to Reference Other Comics This Week

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By: Dave Astor

This week, the popular “Pearls Before Swine” strip is being “visited” by characters from six other widely syndicated comics.

Cartoonist Stephan Pastis is referencing “Zits” today, “FoxTrot” tomorrow, “The Boondocks” on Wednesday, “Luann” on Thursday,” “Rose is Rose” on Friday, and “Dilbert” on Saturday.

In today’s “Pearls Before Swine,” Rat is seen making out with the mother in “Zits.” When her husband expressed shock and exasperation, Rat says: “Beat it, fatty. She’s mine.”

“It’s really fun to draw other cartoonists’ characters,” Pastis told E&P. “You learn a lot about art.” He noted, for instance, that the superb drawing in “Rose is Rose” was tough to duplicate.

This is not the first time Pastis has brought other comics’ characters into his strip, which has built a client list of more than 200 newspapers in less than three years of syndication with United Media. “I like to do it once or twice a year,” he said. “Readers have fun with it. When I was growing up reading the comics, I loved it when strips made fun of each other. Cartoonists enjoy it, too. Ultimately it’s more attention for their strip — and they usually ask for the originals!”

Is Pastis worried about payback? “I’d love to be retaliated against,” he replied with a laugh.

The 36-year-old Pastis only makes fun of comics he likes — and one of them is clearly “Dilbert.” In fact, during the week of Nov. 29, “Pearls Before Swine” will visit “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, who’ll be portrayed as a drug-addled Elvis impersonator roaming around his “Gracebert” home. The six-day sequence was created with affectionate intent — Adams and Pastis are good friends, and the “Dilbert” cartoonist was very helpful in getting “Pearls Before Swine” syndicated.

Pastis frequently does offbeat things in his comic, which co-stars arrogant Rat and humble Pig. On Sunday, Nov. 14, for instance, Pig banged into the wall of the next-to-last panel, causing the color registration in the final panel to go haywire. Pastis, who colors his own Sunday strips, created the effect himself after learning how do it from “The Norm” cartoonist Michael Jantze.

Why does Pastis push the creative envelope so often? He said readers require a reason to look at newspaper comics pages when there’s so much other competitive media around — including the Web, cable TV, and video games. “Comics need to do something to stay noticed,” said Pastis, noting that many are too “static.”

“Pearls Before Swine” isn’t static in another way — it has changed quite a bit since entering print syndication in early 2002. Pastis said he now uses fewer puns and less vaudeville-type jokes. And while there’s a dark undercurrent to much of the comic’s humor, it’s not quite as dark as before.

“I’m writing what makes me laugh, not what I think will make readers laugh,” Pastis said — and, as is often the case, that results in readers laughing more.

Other changes are coming: A small bear will join the cast next month, and a group of hungry crocodiles will move near the Zebra character in January.

Pastis does “Pearls Before Swine” while also working three days a week at Creative Associates in Santa Rosa, Calif. That’s the Charles Schulz-founded company that handles licensing and other matters for the “Peanuts” property. Pastis started the job in 2002 — two years after the United-syndicated Schulz died. But Pastis did previously get a chance to meet the “Peanuts” creator three times, and it’s one of his fondest memories.

“Now I work where he used to work,” said Pastis. “Then I draw my own goofy cartoons. I have the greatest life.”

It wasn’t always that way. Pastis worked as a litigation attorney from 1993 to 2002, and hated it. But thinking of humorous things helped him deal with the pressures of law, and Pastis is so glad he’s no longer an attorney that it spurs him to never take cartooning for granted.

The California native — who graduated from UCLA Law School after earning a degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley — started working on “Pearls Before Swine” during the 1990s. In 1997, Pastis decided he needed more training in comic creation, so he read every “Dilbert” book collection. Then Pastis drew 200 strips and, in 1999, asked associates in his law firm to choose the best 40. He submitted them — and three syndicates were interested. United’s Comics.com site started running “Pearls Before Swine” in late 2000, but there was still no print syndication. Pastis’ comic was getting good but not great Web traffic when Adams gave it a rave review on his site. That finally helped lead to print syndication.

Since then, “Pearls Before Swine” has been collected in three books — including the latest, “Sgt. Piggy’s Lonely Hearts Club Comic” (Andrews McMeel Publishing). And Pastis this May won the award for best comic strip from the National Cartoonists Society.

Pastis himself was named last week in another comic — “Get Fuzzy” by Darby Conley. In the Nov. 17 strip, Conley mentioned his fellow United cartoonist by saying he wasn’t going to mention him. His exact line: “Do NOT give Stephan Pastis a plug.” Pastis’ thoughts about “Get Fuzzy”? “I’ve never heard of it,” he joked. “Is that a Web-only comic?”

The strips Pastis is referencing this week are by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman of King Features Syndicate (“Zits”), Bill Amend of Universal Press Syndicate (“FoxTrot”), Aaron McGruder of Universal (“The Boondocks”), Greg Evans of United (“Luann”), Pat Brady and Don Wimmer of United (“Rose is Rose”), and, of course, Scott Adams of United (“Dilbert”). Some of these cartoonists know their characters will be in “Pearls Before Swine” while others will be surprised.

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